Mueller’s message should’ve been clearer

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Finally, the wait is over for the Russiagate facts. Or is it?

First, there was the four-page summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr. Then there was Barr’s news conference telling us what the report said just hours before we got the redacted report and saw that Barr had misrepresented what Mueller wrote. Barr deliberately created a false first impression that lingers to this day and persuaded President Donald Trump’s supporters not to bother reading the report that contradicts Barr’s version. The report leaves no doubt that Barr lied when he said Department of Justice policy had nothing to do with special counsel Robert Mueller’s decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. That Barr misled us was confirmed by the release of correspondence from Mueller to Barr and by Mueller’s public statement last week.

In that statement, we heard Mueller explain himself, voicing very damning words, although he could have expressed them with more clarity. Instead, Mueller stuck to the strangely contorted grammatical structure and complicated wording of his 448-page report rather than using simple, declarative sentences to make his position clear to the public. Mueller brought a book to a Twitter fight, as MSNBC’s Ari Melber said, and lost an opportunity to persuade more Americans of Trump’s abuse of power. Still, the report and Mueller’s statement provide the “smoking guns” that prove Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help elect Trump and that Trump obstructed the investigation of those crimes.

What Mueller told us reminds me of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s 1973 news conference explaining why we needed the White House tapes and why we had a right to them. Mueller’s words tell Congress why it — not he — is the only avenue to presidential accountability for the obstruction laid out in his report.

Congressional action has been made more essential by Trump’s post-Mueller-report sustained and blatantly unconstitutional stonewalling of all congressional subpoenas, not just regarding Russiagate, but also those about security clearances, the illegality and immorality of putting migrant children in cages and more. Here are three key points Mueller set forth that compel congressional action in the form of public fact-finding hearings like the Watergate hearings or the Richard Nixon impeachment inquiry to reveal the full facts.

  • First, Mueller did not exonerate Trump of obstruction. He made clear that he couldn’t absolve Trump because of the evidence of criminal obstruction he listed in his report. Despite that evidence, he said he couldn’t act because he was bound by DOJ policy prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president, not because he lacked evidence and not because he was turning the decision over to Barr. Indictment, Mueller indicated, was not an option for him. But, as 1,000 former federal prosecutors, including me, concluded, the public evidence is sufficient to prosecute the president but for the Justice Department policy, a policy I believe is legally and constitutionally incorrect.
  • Second, Mueller stressed that obstruction is a serious offense that strikes at the core of our system of justice.
  • And third, Mueller left no doubt that because DOJ policy removed the option of criminal proceedings, he had to rely on the alternative process provided by the Constitution. That is a clear reference to the impeachment powers vested solely in Congress. He put the ball squarely in Congress’ court.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), the man on whose shoulders so much rests, said that Congress will act on the Mueller evidence. He has scheduled hearings for next week on the report.

Americans need to see and hear for themselves the witnesses quoted in the Mueller report. Trump understands the power of television. That is why he is illegally ordering witnesses to provide no documents or testimony to Congress. Forty-five years ago, the Watergate hearings in the Senate and later the impeachment hearings against Nixon in the House proved the power of live testimony, as did the nine-minute TV appearance by Mueller. Witnesses to the events like former White House Counsel Don McGahn; Annie Donaldson, chief of staff to McGahn; and one-time Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski are what is needed now. Citizens can then judge the president’s guilt for themselves.

The wait is not over until Congress steps up to its constitutional obligation, reviews the evidence, lets the public see and hear it, and determines whether the president has acted in a lawless manner.

Jill Wine-Banks is a former Watergate assistant special prosecutor.

This is a guest column. Mark Chiusano will return next week.

Jill Wine-Banks